From TLD, Whole Number 16 (April 4, 1997)


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


Dear Auntie Em, I'm having
a wonderfully multicultural time;
send cabfare


When traveling, I like to determine the overall civilization level of any unfamiliar city where I'm going to be spending more than a couple of hours. I've tried many different techniques, including watching the local news reports, reading the Metro section of the local paper, and talking to the bellman at my hotel. While those sources are interesting and potentially informative, I've finally concluded that the easiest way to detect whether you are in a politically correct city is to take a taxicab. If you reach your destination without resolving to review and update your will, you're probably in an area of the country that still passes for sane. Let me illustrate with a few real-life examples.

It was a few minutes after 6 in the evening, and I had just flown into Washington, D.C.'s National Airport after a grueling 10-day trip. Because of its painfully inadequate highway system, the Washington area has designated several lanes of most of its major highways as HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) routes during rush hours; under this system, only "responsible" motorists who car-pool are entitled to use the lanes enjoying accelerated traffic flow. Automobiles with only one or two occupants are condemned to the regular traffic lanes — blocked by accidents and choked to a standstill — from which the numerically disadvantaged can watch three or four cars per minute go whipping past in the HOV lanes. Penalties for driving in an HOV lane with fewer than the permitted number of passengers resemble punishments for murder in some less-enlightened Third World countries.

So to continue with my story, O Best Beloved: I finally fought my way to the head of the cab line at the airport (an experience that deserves a story of its own later in this account) and fell exhausted into the back of the cab, telling the driver my address. I noticed in passing that his dashboard was decorated with a plaque inscribed in a non-Latin alphabet. We were out of the immediate vicinity of the airport before he asked me whether I had a route I preferred, and I told him I did and what it was. At the time, we were zipping down an exit ramp about 30 mph over the limit, but my driver clutched his head in his hands, uttered a piercing screech, and began to babble that if he took that route, the police would see that there were only two people in the car, and they would beat him with rods, and his family of many children would go hungry. I was babbling myself, mostly about getting his hands back on the wheel and look out for that car! interspersed with pleas to any locally recognized deity who happened to be free at the moment. We went home by my second-favored route, which took 20 minutes longer in the rush-hour traffic, but which was open to all drivers, even those who had green cards of questionable origin and who had originally learned to drive in countries where the driver's test consists of hurtling the car forward for 20 feet and then lurching into reverse for the same distance.

At this point, I will throw in, gratis, an important lesson about riding in vehicles driven by persons who do not speak English either as a first or a second language, or even understand it when it is screamed at them. I learned this lesson from a friend who, for a short time, taught driving skills to Orientals. (His doctors say that he can be released soon, but we'll always have to keep him away from sharp instruments.) Note this carefully: it could save your life. When giving complex instructions (e.g., "Turn right at the next intersection"), never expect the information to be processed as a unit. Whatever thought you first utter is the first to be acted upon, and you can only hope it's not the last one of your life. Instead, first state the condition (AT THE NEXT CORNER) and then the direction (TURN RIGHT). Otherwise, you might find yourself hurtling right into the path of a moving van coming up the curb lane behind you.


On the other side of the cultural divide was a trip I took to Albuquerque several months before. It was in the winter, and a six-hour flight with a change of planes in Detroit turned into the Trip from Hell with several schedule delays, diversion to another airport, and a change of airlines in Las Vegas after a seven-hour layover. When I got to Albuquerque at 3:15 in the morning, I had been in transit for 24 hours. There was a cab at the curb outside the luggage claim area, and the driver told me we'd be at my hotel in 20 minutes. It turned out that he was an off-duty cop, and because I was a lone female traveler, he was particularly diligent about pointing out to me those areas where I should not be alone, describing the current fads in tourist fraud, and otherwise making sure that we didn't run into each other at his day job. When we pulled up at the hotel, he carried all of my luggage into the lobby and told the bellman and the desk clerk (whom he addressed by name) that I had just gotten into town after a disastrous trip, that I hadn't eaten for 12 hours, and that I had to give a speech at 8 a.m.

The hotel staff descended upon me, cooing like mourning doves, and swept me away. Five minutes later, I was in my room, the covers were turned down, somebody had located a box of cookies, and I had agreed that, yes, a 6:45 wake-up call would be fine. If the remainder of my life is blameless, I expect that my entry into the afterlife will closely resemble checking in at the Doubletree Hotel in Albuquerque.

Contrast that trip with a visit to Chicago. It was early in the morning, and there were no cabs in front of my suburban hotel. Another guest and I determined that we were going to the same destination and decided to share a ride, in the somewhat unlikely event that we could get one before we died of old age. Eventually a cab arrived, driven by a Pakistani. Everything was fine until we came to a major intersection with an extremely long red-light cycle. Our driver located his favorite automotive accessory, the horn, and leaned on it for about 90 seconds while the light remained uncompromisingly scarlet. Without warning, he made a sharp left-hand turn over the median strip, raced back along the shoulder against the oncoming traffic, through a parking lot, and into a fire lane. My companion had covered his eyes with his hands and assumed a semi-crouch on the floor, and I heard what sounded like snatches of a Perfect Act of Contrition. We eventually arrived at our destination, I suppose, but to this day I can't remember when or how.


My trip to Tucson was another winter journey that ended up taking a lot longer than the airline guide said it would, but I was glad to discover that that wasn't the only similarity to my Albuquerque experience. There were only six people on my plane, and when I collected my luggage, the cab line was deserted. One of the baggage handlers told me he'd call a cabby he knew, and 10 minutes later, a battered station wagon pulled up. My hotel was about 50 minutes from the airport, which had been built a long way out of town. As we approached the city, the cabby, who'd been telling me about some of the local attractions, including a natural-habitat desert zoo, asked me when I'd had dinner, because he thought I should know that room service at my hotel closed down at 10, but there was a really good take-out deli practically on our way. It sounded like a good deal to me, and so he drove into a strip shopping mall, stopped the cab and the meter, and told me the pastrami was the best in the state. Ten minutes later, we drove on, equipped with my sandwich, a couple of bottles of local spring water, and the cup of coffee I'd insisted on buying him, and he deposited me at my hotel, after giving me his answering-service number so that I could schedule my trip back to the airport.

When the time for that return trip arrived, I asked him to come pick me up at 6:30 in the morning, and he hesitated, finally explaining that, if I didn't mind, he'd like to come for me about 15 minutes sooner. Since I wasn't from Arizona, he wanted to make sure I got a really good look at the beauties of his home state, and if we left at 6:15, we'd be in a particularly advantageous spot when the sunrise came, and everybody should experience at least one desert sunrise. He was right; it really was worth getting up a few minutes earlier for.


And finally there was the time I arrived back home in Washington, in a freezing November rainstorm. Because three separate sets of regulations govern the taxicabs of Washington, Maryland, and Virginia, deplaning passengers must be herded into a cab licensed in the jurisdiction of their destinations. To accomplish this, they are crammed into a chute that opens onto a three-lane-wide cab dispatch area, where a dispatcher who speaks virtually no English asks each traveler where he is going and shoves him toward the appropriate cab. This can take a long time to sort out. For example, if there is a shortage of Maryland cabs, a bottleneck of Maryland passengers builds while Virginia and Washington cabs are waved, passengerless, away from the boarding point, and the dispatcher remains heedless of the wails of Virginia and Washington passengers near the head of the line. The dispatchers are ruthless martinets who will run screaming after passengers who break ranks and attempt to flag cabs on their own. While newcomers to the area are appalled at the arrangement, we locals tend to be sort of bovine about the situation, treating it as though it were actually in conformity with the laws of nature.

But not me, not this night. I'd left home with no coat, in 80-degree, sunny weather, and tonight the rain was lashing almost horizontally into the herd of cab riders who stood huddled in the subfreezing staging area. I was just getting ready to go out into certain pneumonia when a Nigerian skycap asked me whether I needed a cab. I don't know what madness possessed me, but I told him that I certainly did, and he snatched all my luggage onto his handcart and plunged into the downpour while I ran after him. My luggage tags had a Virginia address on them, and he dashed through the three lines of cabs to the closest Virginia cab, banging on the trunk to signal the driver to open it.

The driver, who was Hispanic, popped the trunk and darted out of the cab to help the skycap load my bags. Meanwhile, the dispatcher, an inner-city, Ebonics-speaking type, came screaming through the moving traffic with blood in his eye and murder in his heart. The three of them erupted into an arm-flailing, curse-uttering, fist-shaking mini-riot, and I suddenly realized that, at any second, they were going to turn on me. As were all of the rule-obeying, hitherto placid people who were in line ahead of me. The survival instinct is a strange and powerful force. I clutched my briefcase in front of me like a shield and began reciting the name of my street in a thick Eastern European accent, like a mantra. No matter what they screamed at me, I made it clear that this was the only English phrase I knew, repeating it loudly in an increasingly agitated quaver. As soon as the last suitcase was secure in the trunk, I slapped a five-dollar bill into the Nigerian's hand, dived headfirst into the cab, and locked the door. The Hispanic and the black dispatcher had another pro forma exchange, and suddenly we were free to go, although I decided it was prudent to stay in my assumed persona, burbling Chort pobyerí softly at intervals until we were two blocks away from my house.

There's no place like home. But damn if you're gonna catch me clicking my heels while I say so.

Virginia Dare writes from within flying-monkey range of Washington City, where any storm-tossed Dorothy will figure out right quick that she's not in Kansas anymore.

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